The Corner

What Next After Mubarak?

A reader points out that while Biden’s “Mubarak is not a dictator” comment is risible, the vice president was correct that Mubarak should not step down, because what comes next — a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship — could be worse.

A few responses:

(1) To paraphrase the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, there is constantly a competition between the autocrats and the theocrats, with both exploiting the fear of the other. Into this, George W. Bush was wise to try to cultivate the liberal middle. Alas, after 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice coordinated a reversal of policy. It was an incredibly short-sighted move. Had we continued to cultivate the liberals, we would have a great deal more leverage than we have now. Obsequiousness to dictators might seem a good short-term strategy, but in the long-term, it undercuts our interests and our moral authority tremendously. That said, Bush should not be credited for much since he did not have the strength of leadership to pursue a policy consistent with his lofty rhetoric.

(2) Biden’s embrace of Mubarak is reminiscent of Obama’s indifference to the Iranian protesters who rose up in protest after Ahmadinejad’s June 2009 reelection. Obama kept quiet because he hoped that the Iranian regime would unclench its fist and engage diplomatically. But, if it’s the choice between engaging and preserving an adversary or seeing that adversarial regime cease to exist, the latter is generally a better choice.

(3) The Muslim Brotherhood is a serious threat, but it has not been at the forefront of the protests. Perhaps the Egyptians are finally realizing that Islamism in itself is not an answer. Let’s hope so. We should do nothing to empower the Brotherhood and by nothing, we must think twice before making its members by making them partners for engagement. We forget that engagement isn’t a neutral act, but that by agreeing to sit down with others, we empower them.

(4) We should not expect a pro-American regime should Mubarak flee into the dustbin of history. Egyptians are fiercely nationalistic and, across the region, ordinary peoples’ mindsets have been shaped by decades of anti-American propaganda. The Egyptian people will be angry that they have fallen so far behind the rest of the world. But a serious government intent on bettering its people rather than filling its bank accounts abroad will at least begin the necessary steps to reforming an Egyptian system which is rich in manpower but unable to exploit its advantages.

(5) One out of every three Arabs in the Middle East lives in Egypt, and while Egypt is a shadow of its former self, it is still important culturally. Tunisia’s Ben Ali was perhaps the worst of the region’s dictators after Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. But many others should be quaking in their boots: President Saleh of Yemen is really no better than Mubarak; recent attempts to bolster are relationship with Saleh really do a disservice to long-term U.S. interests, because Saleh is both corrupt and incompetent. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masud Barzani also should be worried.  Perhaps the most dangerous scenario for U.S. interests of the spreading protests would be to King Abdullah of Jordan, a ruler seen by his people as aloof and corrupt while his wife, celebrated in American circles, is seen by Jordanians as living a profligate lifestyle which the Kingdom cannot afford.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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